When their plane arrived at Tirana airport on May 5 after leaving Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, no one was more surprised than the five Uygur men to find that Albania was to be their new home, after more than five years of imprisonment without trial. They arrived in a country where no one speaks their language, which has no experience of accepting foreign refugees and is one of the poorest and most corrupt in Europe. As soon as it found out, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing protested and demanded the five, along with 17 other Uygurs in Guantanamo Bay, be sent back to China. This Kafkaesque story is one episode in the deadly struggle lasting for more than a century between the Chinese government and the Uygurs for control of the region of Xinjiang, three times larger than France and accounting for 20 per cent of China's territory. It's rich in coal, gas, oil and other minerals and grows an important proportion of the nation's cotton. It is a struggle that Beijing is winning. It has used the September 11, 2001, attacks to improve international support for its campaign against Uygur separatists, after Osama bin Laden declared their struggle a jihad. So it was bitterly disappointed that Washington refused to hand back the 22. After concluding the five posed no threat to the US, Washington tried to find a country to accept them. First, it asked Turkey, which has accepted thousands of Uygur refugees and where the exiled leadership of East Turkestan is based. Then it asked Germany - which has also given refuge to Uygurs - Finland, Sweden and Switzerland. All refused, for fear of offending Beijing or because they considered the five not to be political refugees. Eager to form close military ties with Washington and join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Albania accepted them, apparently because it wants to earn credit with the US. It has sent troops to the US-led missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. It says that, while the five are held in a refugee centre outside Tirana, the government is considering their request for asylum. Mainland officials have not given up hope of getting them back. 'We have good relations with Albania,' one said. 'Since the 22 are Chinese citizens, they should be sent back and we'll decide whether they're terrorists. If they're not, we'll let them go home.' The 22 were arrested by the US Army during its war in Afghanistan, following the September 11 attacks. Some were receiving training at military camps run by the Taleban to prepare them for attacks against state authorities in Xinjiang. Others were refugees or visitors. In June 2002, they were transferred to Guantanamo Bay, among almost 500 prisoners from 45 countries. The problem was collecting evidence against them. US bombing raids destroyed the training camps and many of the institutions of the Taleban government, eliminating what written documents there might have been linking them to 'terrorist' attacks. The US military invited mainland police to Guantanamo Bay to take part in the interrogation of the 22, which they did, and asked them to provide evidence of specific crimes by individuals. It said that, if they did, they would send the individuals back to China. But the mainland police were unable to, saying that what proof existed was in the hands of the Americans. So it was that, after 41/2 years of captivity and no trials, the US government concluded that the 22 were no risk to US security and no longer of 'intelligence value', and reclassified them as refugees. But it refused to let them settle in the US, as demanded by human rights groups, and began a search for a new home. Such is the power of China's diplomacy in the world, that even European countries with a long history of accepting refugees declined to take them, leaving Albania, the most unlikely candidate, whose only link with the Uygurs is that most of its population is Muslim, even though the faith is highly diluted after 50 years of strictly enforced atheism. No one knows which country, if any, will accept the other 17. Asked if the 22 were charged with specific crimes, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said on May 9 only that they were 'terrorist suspects' associated with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a group seeking to end Beijing's rule in Xinjiang and classified as a terrorist organisation by the US and Chinese governments. Central government officials estimate that, before the US invasion, several hundred Uygurs were at military training camps in Afghanistan. It is hard to know the extent of the separatist military threat in Xinjiang. News from the region is tightly controlled and consists largely of accounts of economic development and stories that stress the harmony of the different races there. From about 6 per cent of the population in 1949, Han Chinese now account for about 40 per cent of Xinjiang's population of 18 million, about the same as the Uygurs. The rest comprises Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Mongolians and other minorities. A State Council report in January 2002 said between 1990 and 2001 the separatists had launched at least 200 attacks, killing 160 officials and religious figures and injuring at least 440. An unsigned monograph on the internet, evidently written by someone in the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps - a paramilitary group with 2.5 million members - gives a rare insight into the thinking of one of the region's most powerful institutions. It said that in 1980, the then Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang made a serious error in stopping the Sinoisation of the Uygur population and allowing Uygur-language schools to reopen. When graduates of these schools reach university, their Putonghua is so poor they are ill-prepared for the job market. 'Our long-term objective must be to assimilate the Uygurs and wipe out the Uygur language. Its status is weakening as economic ties deepen with the rest of China and Mandarin is the dominant economic language. Companies should give scholarships to Uygurs with good Mandarin,' it said. The monograph also called for large-scale immigration by Han, especially into the five districts of southern Xinjiang, with the heaviest concentration of Uygurs and where separatist feeling is strongest. 'We should learn from Israel and choose empty land, to avoid arousing resentment that we are stealing Uygur land,' it said. 'Terrorists should be executed as soon as we establish their guilt. We absolutely must not consider the interference of international human rights groups. The evidence shows that, once such people are released after serving their sentence, they become leaders of terrorist organisations.' The monograph was not entirely optimistic. It said that in the past two decades, 200,000 qualified Han had left Xinjiang for other regions of China, thanks to liberalisation of restrictions on where people can live and work. 'The worst nightmare is a mass migration of ordinary Han, like the Serbs leaving Kosovo. That is why the former Soviet Union lost Central Asia. 'Our system of family registration temporarily prevents this from happening. But if we do not effectively control terrorism and the economy does not develop well, this movement of population is inevitable.' It said Xinjiang could only become independent if there was serious chaos in the Chinese interior. 'The most likely scenario is if China became democratic, the power of the central government would greatly weaken and society fall into disputes and unrest. Then the western powers, led by the US, would use all means to support the separatists, with the slogan 'human rights is more important than sovereignty', send in UN peacekeepers and split Xinjiang. 'In the 1930s, we had tens of thousands of fully armed soldiers of the Soviet Army in Xinjiang. It is possible we could have the same situation again, with US troops,' the monograph said. 'As long as we do not have chaos in the interior, Xinjiang cannot secede.'